Diplomacy sometimes consists of winks and nods, not outright trades. That might explain why the Obama administration has been quiet about a recent Chinese commercial transaction that nuclear specialists say marks a blatant disregard of international guidelines.
In the midst of intense negotiations on new sanctions for Iran, which China was reluctant to embrace, Beijing confirmed that one of its state companies had signed an agreement to supply Pakistan with two new nuclear reactors.
The lucrative deal, if consummated, appears to be a clear violation of international guidelines forbidding nuclear exports to countries that have not signed onto the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or have international safeguards on reactors. China agreed to the restrictions in 2004 when it joined the organisation that monitors such transfers, the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.
President Barack Obama has strongly advocated for restrictions on the spread of nuclear technology. But his administration has said little publicly about the China-Pakistan deal.
Meanwhile, the administration announced on Tuesday that China, despite its misgivings, had signed on to a draft UN Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran.
US officials said there’s no connection between the two developments, but some analysts see the potential for a quid pro quo.
Before the announcement, Mark Hibbs, a nuclear specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote an analysis on the issue in which he said that members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group “expect that the Obama administration will accept a limited amount of additional Chinese nuclear commerce with Pakistan as a price for getting Chinese support on UN Security Council sanctions against Iran in weeks ahead.”
China suggests the sale is grandfathered from before it joined the NSG, because it was completing work on two earlier reactors for Pakistan at the time.
“China and Pakistan conduct civilian nuclear cooperation fully in compliance with the two countries’ respective international obligations,” said Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong. “The cooperation is transparent, only for peaceful purpose and subject to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) supervision.”
Few outside experts agree.
For its part, the administration says its position on the reactor sale is still under review.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said the US is waiting for China to detail how it plans to proceed with this transaction. He said any claim that the reactors are grandfathered “would be a hard case to make,” but China could seek a formal exemption from the guidelines — which are voluntary in any case.
Indeed, complicating matters is that the US, after hard lobbying, in 2008 won a specific exemption at the NSG for trade with India, Pakistan’s nuclear-armed rival.
Pakistan has long wanted its own exemption — and the US has refused — but the administration may not want to roil relations with Islamabad at a time when their partnership on counterterrorism is seen as crucial.
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